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Hard bosses and poorly-designed bosses—there's a difference

Brad Gallaway's picture

So, I'm playing Chili Con Carnage on PSP for an upcoming review.  I won't spoil the details, but one thing I will say is that the final boss is stupidly hard. I blasted through the entire game in a little over a day, but I was stopped dead in my tracks at the final level.  I tried it six or eight times, made virtually no progress towards seeing credits, and I gave up.  Frustration and anger made me put the game aside before I smashed the hell out of my PSP.

I'm not proud of this. 

I'm the kind of player that takes great pride in finishing games, and I have no problem with putting in the effort, polishing up my skills, learning the tricks, or doing whatever it takes to see something through to the end. I've finished several hundred games in my career, but the ones that stick out in my mind are always the ones that didn't get done.  I know it may seem self-serving, but looking back it seems to me that any time I didn't finish a game, it was due more to poor design than lack of effort on my part.

I'm sure that particular viewpoint of mine seems biased, but for the sake of this blog I'm going with the premise that I'm not a whimpering weaksauce and that developers sometimes make big mistakes when it comes to bosses and endgame sequences.

I really don't understand why they do it.  I mean, seriously... what's the point? Having a boss that's significantly more difficult than the gameplay that preceded it, or a boss that somehow breaks the rules that have been established over the course of gameplay feels like a developer's spitting in my face. I've spent time with their game, I've paid for their product, and I've supported their efforts in the industry... why would they want to completely piss me off?

It's not that I think they do it on purpose, but sometimes their decisions seem like such monumental misjudgments or unbelievably bad choices that I can't understand how any self-respecting developer who cares about their customers and fans would do such a thing. Do they just assume that most players aren't even going to make it that far, so why bother testing?  Or is it perhaps that their testers are so good and so "in the groove" of whatever game they're working on that they develop superhuman powers far above what the average game player will be able to duplicate?

It's not like I want beating a game to be handed to me on a silver platter and I understand the value in feeling like something has been achieved, but I can't stand it when a project that's been interesting, fun, or otherwise worthwhile ends on a sour note with an unbeatable boss or an unwinnable situation and ruins the experience. As a developer, doesn't it make more sense to leave your players feeling like they had a worthwhile ride instead of making them feel irritated and pissed by poor balance, lack of savepoints, bad design or any other misguided attempt to make the final bits of the game "challenging"? 

Chili Con Carnage is the most recent example (and it's an otherwise decent game, really), but there've been a handful of others and feeling the hate and frustration of defeat never diminishes, even for someone like me who has played and completed so many. Silent Bomber, Trauma Center, I curse you. NES Ninja Gaiden... there's a special place in hell just for you. And Vexx—my wife still hates your guts.

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Completely agree with you

Completely agree with you Brad. Several games have been ruined for me simply because the last sequence/boss was cheap and annoying vs. had and challenging. I don't know how you finished Trauma Center, that one drove me crazy.

Anyone else infd God of War's last boss annoying? They stipped you of your normal weapons and fighting and made you adjust to a new one. While it wasn't that hard, it was definetly annoying.

I'm glad to see I'm not the

I'm glad to see I'm not the only one who never beat Ninja Gaiden 1, even after the SNES re-release.

Actually the Xbox Ninja Gaiden did something similar too. The Vigoor Emperor fight in that game took place with Ryu only on a small piece of rock, flying around this giant monster and slashing away and dodging lasers - nothing at all like the elite skills of wall running and jumping I had developed for the past 20 hours.

The most satisfying final enemies are those that stay within the rules established in the game, and allows the player to use the tools he's mastered in some extraordinary way. Zelda final bosses were always fun because you had to bat fireballs back and forth. Metroid Prime forced you to use all of her visors in fast succession - nothing out of the ordinary, just extraordinary.

Ninja Gaiden Xbox


I actually thought the bosses of Ninja Gaiden on Xbox were hard but beatable and never felt cheap. For me this is one of the things which makes this game great. God of War's got nothing on Ninja Gaiden. The boss where Ryu was on a floating rock was I thought a bit easy for an almost-final boss once you figure it out, even if you can't wall run and wall jump during the fight.

But I do share Brad's frustration and anger. One of the biggest faults a game could ever commit is poor design, and a common result of this is a game having inconsistent difficulty, which, in turn, results in the player's dissatisfaction. And poor design is sometimes not apparent until you've played the game for a considerable amount of time. Here's hoping that good design can still be found in the next generation of games, and that game reviewers in the future could also be made aware of this, because it matters to gamers like us.


Even when the end bosses aren't particularly hard they can still ruin the game's overall coherence and detract from the experience if they are not well planned. Sometimes the feeling that one must place an earth-shattering boss at the end of some titles is not the best course of action (JRPGs are especially guilty of this). Other times it's just as you say: overly difficult or otherwise inconsistent bosses.

On a related note, I remember being appalled at how poorly done the end boss of Sly 2 ended up being. There you had a game that constantly asked you to perform diverse actions, ranging from sneaking, brawling to escaping and fighting. And what does the final boss give you? A generic "point and mash the shoot button" sequence. Very disappointing.

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